Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Disaster

Military history, Racial politics, Regional History, Society & Culture

Progressive advocates and activists for a more just and equal society in the US view the Port Chicago❈ naval disaster and mutiny in July 1944 as a crucible for the cause of civil rights. African-American seamen, the majority still in their teens, revolted against the entrenched discriminatory practices they encountered in the Navy during WWII, and although vilified and punished by White authority at the time, their stand was to be a key factor in the eventual decision to abolish segregation in the US armed forces[1].

Devastation on the PC pier after the explosion
The catalyst for the subsequent ‘mutiny’ (as the Navy and White society generally characterised it – see also the follow up blog) was a catastrophic series of explosions whilst two naval carrier vessels were being loaded at the naval dock with ammunition for transportation to the Pacific theatre of war. The mega-blast killed 320 sailors and civilians (the bulk of the sailors were African-Americans), plus a further 390 personnel were injured❧. It was the worst home front disaster of WWII (the cost included nearly $9.9m worth of damage to dock, ships and buildings). The fireball engulfing the Port could be viewed from miles away, triggering a quake felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Such was the force of the explosion that one 300lb chunk of steel was ‘cannonballed’ a distance of 1.5 miles, landing in the main street of the Port township[2].

The disproportionate toll of African-American enlisted men in the disaster was the result of the Navy assigning them to the most menial, labouring jobs as stevedores, basically “pack mules” loading the munitions. The Navy made casual racist assumptions about their ‘limited’ vocational capacity, despite the fact that at the Navy boot camp the black sailors had each completed specific training for one or other of the naval rating occupations[3].

Navy double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Navy treated of the two groups of seamen involved markedly differently – the White officers and sailors were given a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, whereas all the Black sailors (despite being severely shaken and traumatised by the incident) were denied the leave – despite it being standard procedure in such instances. This proved a very sore point for the African-Americans at Port Chicago. African-American seamen enlisted in the US Navy, aside from motives of patriotism, for the promise of recognition as full American citizens – a chance to escape the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies or the North’s institutionalised “second citizenship”[4]. Unfortunately what they found, and Port Chicago was no exception to elsewhere in the military, was that they were still segregated and marginalised, despite the fact they were serving in the defence of their country.

Adding insult to injury: Compensation for African-American victims watered down
That the loss of Black lives in the Port Chicago catastrophe was of diminished importance in American society at the time was even more starkly underlined in the subject of restitution. The Navy asked for $5,000 to be paid to each of the families of the 203 dead African-American sailors. Extraordinarily, after a vigorous and forthright protest from Mississippi Democrat representative, John Rankin (a White Supremacist sympathiser) that the sum be reduced to $2,000, Congress caved in to his pressure and awarded the families $3,000 each[5] … a brazenly unequivocal acknowledgement from the authorities that Black lives in America at the time were not worth as much as White ones!

The Naval Board of Inquiry
The Inquiry into the explosion would give the surviving Black seamen (and the victims’ families) more cause for grievance. The report never established the cause of the disaster❖, but implied that an error by the enlisted men may have led to the explosions. As for the white officers and the base commander, they were all absolved of any blame for what happened[6]. The Naval Board effectively ‘white-washed’ the whole episode, choosing not to cast a critical eye over the glaring pre-conditions that contributed to the disaster. Both training and safety was lax at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Deeply significantly, the Black assigned stevedores were not given instruction in ammunition loading. Training deficiencies were in fact common at Port Chicago – the White loading officers themselves had only minimal training in supervising enlisted personnel and in handling munitions. As well, the Port’s commander Captain Merrill Kinne himself had no training in the loading of munitions and very little experience in handling them[7].

Diagram of pier & the two cargo carriers prior to the explosion
Sowing the seeds of catastrophe
Safety requirements were not observed and unsafe practices abounded: there was a complacency about the maintenance of key operational equipment; safety regulations were not widely distributed for the staff to familiarise themselves with. The practice at Port Chicago was to force the stevedores, working around-the-clock, to load the explosive cargos[8] at a pace that would imperil safety – the rate was set at 10 short tons per hatch every hour (higher than commercial stevedores✾). Facility commander Kinne encouraged a climate of competitiveness between the different crews (which they called ‘divisions’) by keeping a tally of each crew’s hourly tonnage on a chalkboard … leading to the junior officers surreptitiously laying bets on which crew would win the “speed loading contests”[9].

PostScript: Was the explosion a nuclear detonation?
In the early 1980s investigative journalist Peter Vogel postulated the hypothesis that the explosion at Port Chicago was likely to have been a nuclear one. Vogel noted the continued secrecy surrounding the naval base site and pointed to the specific characteristics of the fireball (as described by eyewitness accounts) – a “brilliant flash of white” and the mushrooming effect of the explosion’s dispersion (ie, a Wilson condensation cloud). Vogel also asserted that the force of the actual blast was greater than the reported 1,780 tons of high explosives on board the two Liberty carriers (E.A. Bryan and Quinault)[10].

Whilst Vogel’s theory would hold obvious appeal for conspiracy theorists, it has been not gained traction among historians. Its detractors, especially nuclear historians Badash and Hewlett, point to Vogel’s lack of hard evidence to support his claim, and his inability to explain why the US Government would want to detonate a nuclear device on populated home soil. Badash and Hewlett have noted in particular the absence of any residual radioactivity and resultant harm to the local community – which suggests that only conventional weaponry was involved[11].

❈ the town of Port Chicago, now called Concord, is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Sacramento River
❧ toll for Black Navy servicemen: 203 dead, 233 injured – representing 15% of all African-American casualties for the entire war
❖ it was a bad time for the Navy, PR wise. Just two months prior to the Port Chicago disaster, another calamitous explosion at West Loch (Pearl Harbour) resulted in the death of 163 seamen and hundreds injured … and like Port Chicago the disaster remained unexplained
✾ the quota set on the main base at Mare Island for instance was only 8.7

[1] President Truman’s 1948 Executive order officially desegregating the American armed forced, United States of America Congressional Record (106th Congress), Vol 146-Part 4 (April 3, 2000 to April 25, 2000)
[2] 430 miles to the south, ‘Port Chicago Mutiny (1944)’, www.blackpast.org; ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘A Chronology of African American Military Service. From WWI through WWII.’ (U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. History), www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/chron36.htm
[3] RL Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, (1989)
[4] ibid.
[5] M Moorehead, ‘The Port a Chicago Mutiny’, (Workers World), Feb 1995, www.hartford-hwp.com
[6] Allen, op.cit.
[7] ibid.
[8] The White officers used wilful deception to gain acquiescence, lying to the Black loaders as to the inherent dangers of the work – telling them the ammunition was not live which was catastrophically wrong, I Thompson, ‘Mare Island mutiny court-martial changed Navy racial policies, Daily Republic (Solano County), 23-Feb-2014, www.dailyrepublic.com
[9] Allen, loc.cit.
[10] Vogel, P (1982). THE LAST WAVE FROM PORT CHICAGO. The Black Scholar, 13(2/3), 30-47. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41066881
[11] L Badash & RG Hewlett, cited in ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, op.cit.

Port Chicago 1944 – A Black and White Situation: The Naval Mutiny and its Ramifications

Military history, Racial politics, Retailing history, Society & Culture

San Francisco Bay
On 17th July 1944 a catastrophically massive explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California resulted in the loss of 320 lives, the majority African-American sailors. Less than four weeks after the worst wartime disaster on American home soil, the Navy, without regard for the sensitivity of the situation, instructed the surviving Black sailors to resume loading munitions onto the USS Sangay standing at the dock. 258 of them refused, contending that the conditions at the dock being still unsafe, and commenced a work stoppage. Threatened with court-martial (and a possible death penalty) 208 of the sailors eventually backed down. The navy authorities subsequently took punitive measures against these seamen (forfeiture of pay, pension entitlements curtailed) and they were eventually returned to service elsewhere[1].

The remaining 50 were charged by the Navy with mutiny. The defence counsel and the African-American men themselves denied this charge all through the proceedings, arguing that at no time were they attempting to seize control from the frontline commanders or overthrow the authority of the Navy (as argued by the prosecution team), but were refusing to work in what was clearly an unsafe environment, a protest against their being used as “guinea pigs”[2]. As Robert Allen explained, the mutiny charge was levelled against the defendants because the rightful description of what they were doing, striking against deleterious working conditions, only applied to the civilian sphere[3].

The trial of the “Port Chicago 50”
A court-martial was arraigned to be held on the Navy’s administrative facility at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The conduct of the trial was a travesty of equality before the law for the African-American servicemen involved … the accused black sailors were ridiculed as ‘primitive’ in their intellectual abilities, and “unreliable, emotional, lack(ing) capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions” (as the official ‘Finding of Facts’ stated[4]. The court hearings disintegrated into a shambles at times, eg, the judge fell asleep during the testimonies. After a six-week trial and a deliberation of only 60 minutes, a verdict was reached with unseemly haste – all 50 of the accused were found guilty of mutiny. The 50 convicted seamen were sentenced to between eight and 15 years imprisonment with hard labour as well as being on the receiving end of dishonourable discharges from the Navy[5].

Treasure Island court-martial site
One keen observer who attended the day-to-day court proceedings was NAACP❈’s Thurgood Marshall (later to become the first African-American judge of the US Supreme Court). Marshall was publicly critical of the trial, announcing: “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy towards Negros. Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading!”[6]. In 1945 the NAACP produced a pamphlet entitled ‘Mutiny? The Real Story of How the Navy Branded 50 Fear-shocked Sailors as Mutineers’. Marshall and the NAACP focussed the issue very squarely on the racial dimension … the treatment of the convicted men was symptomatic of a broader pattern of discrimination by the Navy against African-Americans – by mid-1943 there were 100,000 Black men serving in the Navy, but not a single Black officer among them[7]. Marshall organised an appeal on behalf of the 50 prisoners, however in June 1945 the original verdict was reaffirmed by the naval authorities.

Aftermath and consequences of the mutiny trial
The Port Chicago mutiny had an immediate punitive outcome for the 50 Black sailors who were prosecuted, but in the long run it was a Pyrrhic victory for scientific (sic) racists and White supremacists (covert and overt) both inside and outside the military. The whole episode served to raise national consciousness about practices of racial discrimination within the US military forces. And it was to prove a catalyst and inspiration for the postwar Civil Rights movement[8]. For the Navy the ramifications of Port Chicago made itself felt in short time. By the end of the World War the Navy had, in piecemeal fashion, initiated its own reforms of discriminatory practices, anticipating President Truman’s official decreeing of desegregation of the American armed forces – which did not come into law until 1948. With the world war over the Navy found it untenable to justify the continuing incarceration of the Port Chicago 50 … in January 1946 all of the men were released and assigned to other details overseas. Significantly though, none received pardons for their ‘crimes’, the convictions remained on the books[9].

A dangerous job for White servicemen!
The Port Chicago episode – a closed book reopened?
As Erika Doss has noted, “for decades the full story of the Port Chicago disaster of July 1944 was declared “classified” information and rendered virtually absent from historical narratives of the “good war”[10]. The egregious treatment of African-American seamen remained an inconvenient chapter in America’s war history, one best forgotten (Port Chicago’s subsequent name change seems intended to support this objective of burying the thorny facts of the episode).

By the 1990s the whole shameful business had started to become more openly addressed … in 1994 a memorial to the Port Chicago 50 was created on the former base’s site. But in the same year these good intentions were turned on their head by a fresh Navy inquiry which found (unbelievably) that race was not a factor in the 1944 court case – a finding that would not be out-of-place in the annals of the “Flat Earth Society”!

A number of the convicted African-Americans then still alive agitated for a just resolution, a reversal of the wrongs perpetrated against them. One of “the 50”, Freddie Meeks was talked into requesting a pardon which was finally granted in 1999 by President Clinton[11]. However five others including Joe Small refused to request the same, steadfastly insisting that as they had committed no criminal act, they was no question of seeking a pardon.

PostScript: High hopes for justice with Obama
The continued denial of justice for the Port Chicago 50 led it to become a cause célèbre in the US. This remains the case in 2017 despite the fact that all of the convicted African-American sailors are now dead. Their relatives were among those calling on the Black president, Barack Obama, to exonerate “the 50” and overturn their verdicts. Disappointingly, Obama’s outgoing powers of presidential pardon, recently enacted, did not include any of the Port Chicago 50 in its number – though this was more to do with the Obama administration’s inability to find a legal mechanism to make this a reality, rather than any lack of will on the part of the president[12].

❈ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

[1] ‘Port Chicago mutiny’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[2] Joe Small, one of the survivors of the disaster and labelled as a ‘ringleader’ by the Navy, summed up the position taken by the 50 defendants,
“(we) weren’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions, with no improvements, no change, the same group of officers…we thought there was a better alternative”, E Doss, “Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America’, American Studies Journal, Number 59 (2015), www.asjournal.org
[3] B Bergman, “War, ‘mutiny’ and civil rights: Remembering Port Chicago”, Berkeley News, 10-Jul-2014, www.berkeley.edu
[4] A Gustafson, ‘The Port Chicago Disaster: Race and the Navy in World War II’, (Turnstile Tours), 29-Aug-2014, www.turnstiletours.com
[5] Bergman, loc.cit.
[6] Marshall, quoted in NA Hamilton, ‘Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States’, (2002)
[7] Doss, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.
[9] US Secretary of the Navy James V Forrestal and Admiral Ernest King, working together, were instrumental in getting the wheels of integration in the Navy going forward, S Sundin, ‘Port Chicago – Desegregation of the US Navy’, (Sarah’s Blog), 28-Jul-2014, www.sarahsundin.com
[10] Doss, op.cit.
[11] C Nolte, ‘Clinton Pardons Wartime ‘Mutineer’ / Port Chicago black sailor of 50 in infamous case’, (SFGate), 24-Dec-1999, wwwsfgate.com
[12] ‘Full list: Obama pardons these 78 people, shortens 153 prisoners’ sentences’, (Pix 11), 19-Dec-2016, www.pix11.com

Project Fu-Go: Japan’s Pacific War Balloon Counter-Offensive

Military history, Regional History

In the latter stages of the Second World War, Japan, under pressure from American and Allied bombing raids on its territory, devised a novel fight-back strategy against the invaders. The strategy devised by the Japanese military high command, was certainly an unorthodox one and one signifying the increasingly desperate position of Imperial Japan in the global war.

By the second half of 1944 the Japanese military situation was unravelling fast … serious Japanese army and navy reversals in the Pacific theatre, Japan had lost its aircraft carriers, the earlier submarine raids in California and Oregon had been largely ineffective, and morale at home among the Japanese citizenry was flagging[1]. As the tide of the Pacific War was turning against Japan, the US targeted key cities of the Japanese home islands – from June 1944 to the Japanese surrender in August 1945 America unleashed a systematic, strategic bombing campaign (from bases in China and Micronesia) with long-range B-29 bombers causing extensive damage and destruction in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe, as well as a host of smaller cities❈.

The Japan military command in response devised a plan, the result of Project Fu-Go – to attack North America using hydrogen gas balloons, fūsen bakudan (literally “balloon bomb”). These “fire balloons” had incendiary bomb devices attached to them, and the idea was to release them from Japan, using the jet stream to carry them the 5,000km across the Pacific Ocean and destroy towns, farmland and forests in the US and Canada[1]. The mechanism constructed was a deceptively simple but clever device to “automate the flight and release the explosives” at a given point and altitude[2].

Japanese scientists had conducted atmospheric experiments from western Japan to eastern Japan, charting the pattern of late autumn/winter jet streams. The tests revealed a particularly strong air current in the Pacific at 30,000 feet✠. The first balloon weapons were released in November 1944 (at the same time that American B-29 missions started taking a more devastating toll on the Japanese homeland). The fire balloon journey took between 30 and 60 hours to reach the west coast of North America, however it has been estimated that about only one in nine of the balloons made it to America (an estimated 1,000 out of 9,000 launched from Japan)[3]. But the number that made the journey is very imprecise … US researchers after the war discovered or accounted for at least 342. It is believed that many more landed on the American mainland but they have not been detected yet owing to being located in remote, unpopulated parts of the country[4]. This is even more likely to be the case in the much sparser populated western Canada.

The first sightings of the strange hydrogen balloons on the American west coast were puzzling to the locals. Their origin was also a puzzle for the authorities until US geologists made tests of the sand recovered from the ballast bags which traced it back to Japan and the beaches of Honshu. Many Americans were still doubtful that the balloons had floated all the way from Japan, speculating that they had been transported by Japanese submarines and secretly unleashed on the North American west coast[5].

The American response to Fu-Gos
The seemingly capricious nature (and innocuous appearance) of the fire balloons, to the American authorities, might not initially have seemed to pose much of a danger. Washington (DC) however did take it seriously … there was concern about the possibility of forest fires breaking out in the western regions of Canada and the US¤, and especially worrying to the US was the prospect of the Fu-Gos carrying biological weapons (which it knew the Japanese had been trying to develop)[6].

Once the source of the balloon weapons was established, the US government through its newly formed Office of Censorship put a watertight security blanket around the incidents. This starved the Japanese military of vital intelligence on the results of the balloon offensive, so Tokyo had no idea of whether the attacks were successful or not. US fighter pilots were engaged to intercept the incoming balloons but the results were at best marginal (one score only of the Fu-Gos were shot down)[7].

Klamath Falls, Fu-Go fatality
The only known WWII fatalities occurring on contiguous US territory
The information blackout on the Japanese balloon attacks also extended to American civilians … this was to have a solitary tragic consequence late in the war. In May 1945 a picnicking group of adults and Sunday school children discovered one of the grounded fire balloons in countryside near Bly in southern Oregon. Their curiosity about the strange balloon led them to pick up the still live weapon … as a result a pastor’s wife Elsie Mitchell, her unborn child and five children aged 11 to 14 died instantly from a huge explosion. The victims were the only known American civilians killed by enemy action after Pearl Harbour[8]. After the fatal incident the Office of Censorship issued a public alert about the fire balloons, warning citizens to stay clear of them.

The Bly incident was the solitary lethal attack on sovereign soil of the US mainland in the course of the World War. The only other damage from the Japanese fire bombs was to property … one Fu-Go incendiary struck a nuclear weapons plant in Hanford (Washington state), temporarily blacking out the plant which was manufacturing plutonium for use in the August 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan which ended the war.

Cessation of the fire balloon attacks
The uncertainty of not knowing how effective the balloon weapons were, did not inhibit the Japanese military from trying to exact propaganda value from the situation. News bulletins emanating from Tokyo broadcast a steady supply of “fake news” (as much for domestic consumption to boost morale) … announcements proclaimed that the floating incendiaries had claimed 10,000 US casualties, that the attacks had resulted in general alarm within the American population … they also issued a threat that Japanese troops were about to invade North America[9].

In April 1945 the Allied forces succeeded in blowing up two of Japan’s main hydrogen plants … this resulted in a scarcity in the ingredient needed for the fire balloons. This blow to the production of balloon weaponry, added to a growing realisation by the Japanese commanders that the attacks has not been a success relative to the resources expended, sealed the fate of the Fu-Go program[10].

PostScript 1: A balloon-scattered continential landscape
American Air Force writer Robert Mikesh described the Japanese fire balloons campaign as the “world’s first intercontinental weapons delivery system”. In six months in 1944-45 thousands of fire balloons were dispersed across the eastern Pacific and parts of North America. For most of the projectiles their fate was a watery grave but in the 70 plus years since the end of WWII the remnants of Fu-Gos have been found, strewn across the continent – as far east as Michigan and the Great Lakes, as far south as Mexico, and as far north as Alaska and Yukon.

PostScript 2: Canada’s fire balloon fields
Some of the balloon bombs were found in disparate locations like Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands, and one in British Columbia as recently as 2014. Canada in fact was as equally susceptible as the US to the latent dangers of the fire balloon attacks, much of the western coast and all of the northern part of the country comprises dry, forested land. At least 57 Fu-Gos were discovered across the Canadian west during those six months of the campaign (in Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC). From the recollections of some Canadians who experienced close encounters with unexploded balloons, it is somewhat of a miracle that there were not more fatalities of the balloon weapons that the seven in Oregon[11].

Fu-Go landing sites
(Source: National Geographic) Two of the fire balloons actually drifted back westward & landed on Honshu island!

❈ the first US air raid on Japan had been in April 1942 – known as the Doolittle Raid – an isolated strike on Tokyo (primarily) intended as retaliation for Pearl Harbour four months earlier, and to probe Japan’s vulnerability to air attack
✠ this was the discovery of one particular Japanese meteorologist in the 1920s – Wasaburo Oishi
¤ a chilling recent echo of this was al-Qaida’s 2012 online urging of jihadists to plant “ember bombs” in American forests (Carroll 2014)

[1] R Carroll, ‘How Japan’s fire balloons took the Second World War to America’s soil’, The Guardian, 31-Oct-2014, www.theguardian.com
[2] S Lehman, Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Exploding Balloons’, Gizmodo, 13-May-2014, www.gizmodo.com.au
[3] its purpose hoped to provide an inexpensive way to shift the war’s focus onto sovereign American territory, ‘Fire balloon’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[4] J Rizzo, ‘Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Balloon Bombs’, National Geographic, 27-May-2013, www.nationalgeographic.com
[5] RC Mikesh, ‘Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America’, Smithsonian Annals of Flight, no 9 (1973), www.sil.si.edu; ‘Fire balloon, op.cit.
[6] Rizzo, loc.cit.
[7] Lehman, loc.cit.
[8] ibid.; Rizzo, loc.cit.
[9] ‘Six killed in Oregon by Japanese bomb’, (‘This Day in History’, 1945), www.history.com. Seven in fact died including Mrs Mitchell’s unborn child
[10] Mikesh, op.cit.
[11] For instance one Saskatchewan youngster in 1945 accidentally stepped on a collapsed fire balloon which failed to detonate, S Brace, ‘Japanese bombs landed in Saskatchewan 71 years ago’, (Saskat News), 11-Feb-2016, www.cba.ca

The Hawkesbury – A Not So Close Encounter with Napoleonic France

Local history, Military history

Hawkesbury R. at Windsor
Hawkesbury R. at Windsor
Windsor, 63 kilometres north-west of Sydney and nestling on the southern side of the winding Hawkesbury River, is one of the most historic towns of Australia’s European settlement. The first white settlers moved into Windsor in the early 1790’s giving it the name Green Hills, although it wasn’t until Lachlan Macquarie’s governorship (commencing in early 1810) that the town and environs of Green Hills (by now renamed ‘Windsor’) started to get a kick-along, progress-wise.

The Riverview Shopping Centre in George Street (Windsor’s high street), constructed in 2006, offers up its own acknowledgement of the suburb’s rich historical story. On the centre’s marble effect floor, positioned at regular points, there is a series of banner inscriptions which identify certain events or milestones in the history of the Hawkesbury district.

Among the little snippets of local historical interest is a reference to Windsor’s own notorious colonial bushranger, George Armstrong. Armstrong – labelled “the terror of the Windsor district” – briefly threatened the safety and well-being of the township’s citizens in 1837[1] (an interesting side-note to this is that nearby Wilberforce – just across the river – was the birthplace of a far more celebrated Australian bushranger, Fred Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt).

However it was another historical headline on the centre floor that caught my eye – the banner read “1814 ~ Report given to Governor Macquarie of planned invasion of the Hawkesbury by Napoleon”. I was not previously aware of any reference to a supposed connection between Napoleon and Sydney’s Windsor district, and found the notion an intriguing one.

Gov. Macquarie in Thompson Square
Gov. Macquarie in Thompson Square
At the time the Napoleonic Wars were at their height with Britain and its allies moving towards the ultimate showdown with France at Waterloo in 1815. The official who alerted Macquarie to the French danger was Earl Bathurst, Secretary of War and Colonies (Bathurst to Macquarie: 1813 correspondence). Bathurst’s letter warned of the possibility of French attack on the colony, most likely to originate by sea from Broken Bay, down the Hawkesbury River … the target was thought to be Windsor’s granary (Sydney’s “food bowl”), to cut off its supply to Sydney Town[2]. In response, Macquarie, already preoccupied with the task of making Windsor more secure, stepped up the strengthening of the military garrison and boosted the population of free men (including emancipists) in the district.

British intelligence about a planned invasion of the Sydney colony has its genesis in the period’s French maritime expeditions in the South Pacifc, particularly that of Nicolas Baudin in 1802 and 1803. Baudin’s scientific expedition visited Port Jackson in 1802 and it was the activities (and subsequent written record) of the expedition’s naturalist, François Péron, which provided the blueprint for supposed French intentions in New Holland. Whilst there, Péron, under the guise of his scientific activities, engaged in a “freelance spying” exercise[3], collecting information on the nature and defence capacity of the colony. Péron wrote down his observations in a secret report (entitled Mémoire sur les établissements anglais à la Nouvelle Hollande).

Monsieur F Péron
Monsieur F Péron
Péron claimed to be a government agent and that the expedition’s real purpose was a political mission. The zoologist-cum-spy recommended that France attack the fledgling British colony in New Holland, speculating that the act would incite an Irish rebellion against the colony’s English overlords and elicit resistance from the indigenous population as well. The military strategy advanced by Péron also called for a takeover of the south of Tasmania. The assault on Sydney via the Hawkesbury was one of three invasion routes proposed by Péron[4].

Although Péron’s viewpoint was widely discredited at the time, his memoir has recently been translated into English (from the original) and new research on the subject at Adelaide University (UOA) has thrown up fresh evidence to support the contention of Péron that Napoleon was seriously considering such an attack. Peron’s report (and the reactions to it) demonstrates that Port Jackson/NSW was perceived as a strategic location by both Britain and its enemies. The related UOA research unearthed further evidence that the British South Pacific outpost held a strategic necessity that went beyond the mere penal colony that was stated to be Sydney’s raison d’être[5].

Isle de France
Isle de France
The perspective of the Sydney colony proffered by Péron (and Napoleon’s later acknowledgement of his views) underscore the displeasure with which the French viewed Britain’s decision to unilaterally annex this great, southern land without consulting other European powers. The new British colony was also seen as posing a potential threat to France’s Indian Ocean island possessions, especially to the French naval base in the Isle de France (Mauritius and its dependent territories)[6].

The British colonialists in Australia did recognise and respond to the threat from France at some level. Concern over French incursions into Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was intensified by the contemporary activity of French explorers (separate ‘scientific’ expeditions by d’Entrecasteaux, Baudin and Freycinet in the south) – and prompted His Majesty’s government to occupy the south of Tasmania and plant the “Union Jack” on King Island (in the Bass Strait) in fear of French designs on this part of the continent[7].

Hawkesbury River
Hawkesbury River
Bathurst’s “hush-hush” letter to Macquarie (based on information supplied by agents friendly to Britain) also raised the prospect of a joint naval attack by both France and the United States[8]. The plan was for the combined fleet to assemble at Two Fold Bay (Eden, NSW) and then proceed up the Pacific Coast and launch an attack on Sydney from the north (Hawkesbury River). Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign and the reverses suffered by the US early in the War of 1812 meant that the plan was never put into practice[9], but the episode served to underline how strategically important the remote, western Pacific colony was for Britain imperial ambitions.

[1] ‘The Notorious Bushranger George Armstrong’, Hawkesbury Historical Society, (10-Feb 2016), www.hawkesburyhistoricalsocietyblogspot.com.au
[2] ‘Windsor, New South Wales’, (Wiki), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[3] described by some as an “amateur espionage project”, N Rothwell, ‘Francois Peron’s French lessons in the colonisation of Australia’, The Australian, 05-Apr 2014
[4] M Connor, ‘The secret plan to invade Sydney’, Quadrant Magazine, 01-Nov 2009, www.quadrant.org.au; ‘Napoleon’s Intention to Capture Thompson Square’, (The Battle for Windsor Bridge – Personal Stories), www.rahs.org.au
[5] R Brice, ‘Sacré bleu! French invasion plan for Sydney’, (ABC News, 11-Dec 2012), www.abc.net.au
[6] ibid.
[7] ‘Battle for Windsor Bridge’, op.cit.
[8] At the time (1813), both France and the US were engaged in (distinct but related) wars with Britain, whose navy was blockading the fleets of both countries. Attacking the important colony of Port Jackson made tactical sense to divert the British fleet away from US and French ports, ibid.
[9] ibid.

‘Fortress’ Sydney – a Colonial Paradigm of Feeble Fortifications

Local history, Military history

The founding of the British colony in Port Jackson in 1788, isolated from the mother country some ten-and-a-half thousand miles away, brought with it many anxieties for the new settlers. With French, Spanish, Dutch and Russian empires all vying with Britain for global supremacy, the security of Sydney was very much on the minds of Governor Phillip and his gubernatorial successors. Right from the get-go measures were put in place to shore up the vulnerable colony’s defences, both against potential external threats and internal rebellion. How secure and how effective these efforts were, we shall examine below.

What's left of the Dawes Pt battery, these days with a pretty sizeable awning!
What’s left of the Dawes Pt battery, these days with a pretty sizeable awning!
In 1790 a battery was located in Sydney on a rocky bluff jutting out into the harbour on what was to become known as Dawes Point. The Dawes Point fortifications were chosen to be the first line of defence against enemy invaders because of its propitious location – a high, narrow, peninsula offering an excellent views straight out onto the harbour§. Also, being very close to the main settlement at Sydney Cove, news of any sign of impending danger or threat could be quickly relayed to the townspeople. A battery was also installed on Windmill Hill (now Observatory Hill) in 1794. Ten years later work commenced on the construction of Fort Phillip on the same site, the fort was intended to be a citadel in the event of convict insurrection, however it was never completed. In the 1850s most of the fortified structure got dismantled to make way for the building of the Sydney Observatory¹.

Over the course of the first seventy years or so of settlement in Sydney the security focus gradually shifted from concentrating on the inner harbour (Dawes Point and Sydney Cove) to defending the Heads and Botany Bay. In 1801 the first gun emplacements were built in Middle Head (north of Obelisk Bay) as a response to the growing threat to Britain of France under Napoleon (in the 20th century these fortifications were overgrown by vegetation and more or less forgotten until rediscovered in the 1990s)².

Outmoded artillery on Windmill Hill
Outmoded artillery on Windmill Hill
The threat to New South Wales, so distant from the European theatres of the Napoleonic Wars, probably seems a remote one when seen through modern eyes, but it was taken seriously at the time. Sydney was perceived as a desirable prize because of several factors – it had a strategically important harbour, the envy of navies all over the world; there was only a small population in place to defend the settlement; and later on it had huge quantities of gold bullion acquired from the goldfields³.

It seems that the adequacy of the fortifications was being called into question constantly throughout the 19th century. Criticism from prominent citizens of the colony was common (the embrasures ineffective, fragility of the fortification as a whole, etc). One of the points made by Commissioner Bigge’s Report into the colony (1820) was that in the event of another conflict between Britain and the USA (following upon the recent War of 1812) Britain’s colonies, especially New South Wales, would be very susceptible to seizure by the US4. In addition, the prevalence of American whaling fleets in the South Pacific made many in the colony fearful of raids on Sydney Town by Yankee privateers.

Francis Greenway was the architect commissioned to strengthen the principal fort at Dawes Point in 1819, having described (with some exaggeration) the battery’s prior state as “perfectly useless … so that any speculator of any of the nations we were at war with, might have entered our harbour, destroyed our infant town, blowed up the stores, and left us in a woeful condition5. Greenway was also responsible for the construction of Fort Macquarie on the tip of Bennelong Point (smack-bang where the Sydney Opera House is today!).

The strengthening of Sydney’s defences have often occurred as a reaction to security scares in the colony. The decision in 1841 to convert a convict hold in the middle of the harbour (Pinchgut Island) into Fort Denison came about after two American warships were discovered having anchored themselves in the harbour without being detected. The fortifications of Fort Denison were in any case far from swiftly constructed, not being finished until 1857, by which time the perceived external threat had shifted to Russia after the Crimean War.

South Head was fortified in the 1840s – though not equipped with artillery until the 1870s! Possessing an ideal vantage point to view vessels approaching the harbour, it was also used as a lookout and a signal station. Today a naval base, HMAS Watson, is housed on the land it occupied6.

Not all plans for the reform of Sydney’s coastal defences got acted on. In 1848 Lt-Colonel James Gordon proposed a definitive, systematic plan to upgrade and improve both the inner (harbour) fortifications and the outer (heads) fortifications. Gordon’s plans only ever got partially implemented by the colonial authorities who were content to “cherry-pick”7.

Upper Georges Heights battery
Upper Georges Heights battery
Following the Crimean War conflict, a fear that the Russian Pacific Fleet might invade the colony prompted an upgrade in defence facilities. Some fortifications were added to Bradleys Head and South Head, although nothing much really happened until Britain’s Cardwell Army Reforms came into effect (1870). One consequence was that British ‘redcoats’ were withdrawn from Australia and the colony was required to raise local units to protect itself. This proved a spur to the authorities in Sydney to construct new fortifications further north-east in Port Jackson, around Mosman. Gun emplacements were built at Middle Head, Georges Head, Bradleys Head and Lower Georges Heights.

British fears that Tsarist Russia might try to extend its empire into India via Afghanistan led to a wave of ‘Russophobia’in the 1870s and 80s8, which spread eventually to the NSW colony. Already, in 1863 a Russian corvette (the Bogatyr) had visited Sydney and Melbourne, prompting the Sydney Morning Herald to allege that it was secretly conducting topographical surveys of Port Jackson and Botany Bay to ascertain the strength of the settlement’s fortifications9.

Bare Island - decent sort of target!
Bare Island – decent sort of target!
The Sydney authorities, fearing an attack from the Russian Navy and sensing that Sydney was vulnerable to an attack from its southern “back door”, built a fort in 1888 at Bare Island off La Perouseat the entrance to Botany Bay. The edifice unfortunately was composed of poor quality materials and began to crumble before completion. The islet fort was decommissioned in 1902 due in part to the state of its armaments. Though heavily-gunned its technology had quickly become outdated. The Russian Pacific Fleet never came to Bare Island but these days scuba divers flock to it as its waters are a prized diving site10.

The Jervois-Stratchley Reports (defence capability reviews) of the late 1870s emphasised the military importance of sea-ports and this led to a new phase of fort construction in Sydney and elsewhere in the Australasian colonies, eg, Bare Island, Fort Nepean (Port Phillip Bay, Victoria), Fort Lytton (Brisbane) and the eponymous Fort Scratchley in Newcastle. The fortifications designed by Lieutenant Scratchley, eg, Bare Island, the 1890s cliff-top forts manned with large, anti-bombardment guns around Sydney’s eastern seaboard to protect the suburbs of Vaucluse (Signal Hill Fort), Bondi (Ben Buckler) and Clovelly/Coogee (Shark Point), were outmoded and already basically obsolete when completed11.

The development of Sydney’s coastal defences has followed an irregular course since 1788. Its decidedly desultory and piecemeal trajectory can be attributed to a number of factors, principal among which is cost. Funding defensive works with all the infrastructure required (then as well as now) is an expensive business. Unsurprisingly, the resort to cost-cutting as in the Dawes Point battery, led to the use of inferior materials and rapid disintegration of the construction. Procuring the artillery was neither cheap or easy to do, and in virtually no time the weaponry became out-of-date12. Also at times, the “tyranny of distance” possibly breed in the local authorities a degree of complacency. Being so far away from where the international action was, meant that coastal fortification often ended up a lower priority that the other, immediate needs of the colony.


Bare Island has functioned as a museum since the early 1960s, having never fired a shot in anger (fortunately so perhaps, as had it seen action, its location would have been terribly exposed to hostile fire). Its infrastructure remains largely intact although it’s disappearing guns have indeed ‘disappeared’ for good. The nearby but remote Henry Head is today overgrown to a large extent with vegetation and also sans guns.

Old Fort Rd, Middle Head
Old Fort Rd, Middle Head
Middle Head/Georges Head (Mosman) has probably the best kept fortifications on the Sydney coast, owing in large part to the fact that this part of Middle Harbour was under military jurisdiction for over a century. The area at various times has contained, et al, a naval hospital, army camp (barracks, quarters, etc), a gunnery school and a submarine miners’ depot.

The Outer Fort's notorious "tiger cages"
The Outer Fort’s notorious “tiger cages”
Middle Head has two forts on the headland, the larger one, the Outer Fort, is perched up on sloping ground in front of a cleared area. The fort’s emplacements contain the notorious the “tiger cages”. During the Vietnam War the cages were used by the Australian Army to train soldiers to withstand torture and interrogation. On the iron grills of some of the cages rust marks are still visible, a remnant of the water entrapment ordeals that used to be meted out! Although no shots were ever fired in anger from the Head, in the middle of last century the battery’s gunners used to practice the accuracy of their 10 and 12 inch guns on a tiny, rocky outcrop of an island in Middle Harbour – which is now fully submerged (no surprise!)

imageThe smaller, Inner Fort with dense vegetation surrounding it has a very different claim to fame. It was used as the bikies’ hideout in the 1974 independent cult movie Stone. The emplacements have long entrance ramps leading to circular gun enclosures and the bikies on their Harleys would tear through the bush track and along the ramps into the enclosures. The two forts and the nearby fort at Georges Head all have the same design – circular gun mounts with ancillary rooms running off them and a vast network of connecting tunnels leading to other military instalments on the promontory.

Emplacements at Middle Head
Emplacements at Middle Head
The Dawes Point battery today is non-existent, the space merely one of the historic curios of the Rocks. All that remains is the symbolism of a couple of authentic looking canons, some information boards recounting the history and architecture, and an artist’s modern, interpretative representation of the former structure … and a nice park in the shadows of the steel under-girth of the harbour bridge.

§ Dawes Point functioned as the centrepiece of a system of signal stations. A series of strategically positioned signal posts stretching out to the Heads would relay information on marine activity such as the approach of foreign shipping

at the same gun emplacements (with disappearing guns) were constructed at Henry Head on the most easterly part of La Perouse

¹ ‘Colonial Powder Magazines – Fort Phillip Powder Magazine’, www.users.tpg.com
²’Sydney’s lost fort declared open’, 23. July 2010, www.news.com.au
³ Dean Boyce, ‘Defending colonial Sydney” Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/defending_colonial_sydney, viewed 30 March 2016.
4 Boyce 2008; A Wayne Johnson, ‘Showdown in the Pacific: a Remote Response to European Power Struggles in the Pacific, Dawes Point Battery, Sydney, 1791-1925’, (Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority), www.sha.org/uploads/files/
5 F Greenway, Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 13 September 1834.
6’Bridging the Gap’, Dictionary of Sydney,2011.
7 ‘Sydney’s Fortifications’ (2015), www.visitsydneyaustralia.com.au
8 ‘Russophobia’ was evident at the time in the popularity of “Invasion scare novels” (eg, The Invasion by WH Walker, published in Sydney in 1877, an account of a fictionalised attack on Sydney by the Russian navy, Boyce 2008.
9 A Massov, ‘The Russian Corvette “Bogatyr” in Melbourne and Sydney in 1863’, http://australiarussia.com.au
10 ‘Bare Island (New South Wales)’, Wikipedia, www.e.n.wikipedia.org
11 Boyce 2008; ‘Sydney’s Fortifications’ 2015.
12 ‘Sydney’s Colonial Fortifications’, Australian Society for the History of Engineering & Technology (ASHET, Self-guided Tour, nd)